STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You know, when I was a kid, the Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote an article disparaging my home city of Indianapolis. Indianapolis residents then wrote articles dumping on Chicago. It was mostly fun. That sort of sparring takes on another dimension, though, when it is done by the president of the United States while criticizing a lawmaker who happens to be black.
On a quiet Saturday, the president seized attention by criticizing Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Baltimore. The president said no human being would want to live in Baltimore - although people do want to live there, including City Council President Brandon Scott.
BRANDON SCOTT: The president of the United States, the leader of the free world, who's the person who is in a best position of any human being on the planet to help Baltimoreans who need help, instead of doing so is using his office to beat down an American city.
INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following the story. He's in our studios. Good morning.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So the president grabs attention. Everybody takes the bait. But why does he do it now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, right now, he just did - on Saturday, you mentioned the tweets. He did it right after an unflattering segment on Fox News about Representative Cummings' district. Should also note that Cummings is the chair of the House Oversight Committee, which has been investigating Trump, and not only Trump but also his family.
INSKEEP: So Fox News goes after Cummings. And then the president amplifies that attack and takes it from a conservative media source to all sorts of media, including this one.
ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely. It's gotten really personal on both sides. Democrats are calling Trump's tweets racist. So are many Baltimore residents. And like in other situations, or unlike in other situations, no one is backing down, especially Trump. He's just turning up the heat. He's tweeted since then over 14 times attacking Cummings and the district.
INSKEEP: I guess the reason you would call this racist is because Baltimore is a majority-black city, and you're playing all of - playing on all these stereotypes of crime-infested inner cities and so forth, even though there's really a lot of interest that happens in Baltimore.
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, this is obviously a majority African American district. There's a lot of people who are very personal. The Baltimore Sun editorial department said it's - very clearly, that's what's going on here.
INSKEEP: What did Congressman Cummings say about this attack on him?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, he has not said much. But he did tweet about it and said, Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors. He went on to say that it's his constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch.
INSKEEP: Ah, with that last part suggesting that the real point of the president's attack is that Elijah Cummings is independently looking into the administration.
ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely. And as I mentioned, Trump's not only being investigated, but so is his family. Cummings just this week - or last week, pardon me - sought the texts - personal emails and personal texts of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
INSKEEP: And did the president mention the investigation of him while attacking Cummings and his city?
ORDOÑEZ: He did. In his tweets, he pretty much explicitly said, you should be focusing on your own community, your district, instead of investigating me. Again, he said witch hunt, obviously.
INSKEEP: Now, you have noted that the president has relied in his early re-election campaign on attacks of this sort. How are Republicans responding, though, as he does this one?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, we haven't heard from too many of them, like before when Trump went after those four minority congresswomen. Many of the Republican leaders are kind of being quiet on this. Some Republicans have spoken, but it's been pretty tempered. Will Hurd - he's the only African American Republican - has - would not explicitly condemn these attacks. He only said he wouldn't tweet that way.
INSKEEP: Anybody else talking in that way?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, Mick Mulvaney, he's chief - Trump's chief of chaff (ph). He was asked on CBS whether he understood why the pressure would be that. But, look, this is a issue of concern for many. And this is a strategy of President Trump, to go after racial divisions.
INSKEEP: Franco, thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.